Assessing the Academy Award for Feature Documentary
It was a field that had its issues. The Academy Award nominees for Best Feature Documentary included a film that may not have been real, one that may have stretched its premise with some pyrotechnics, and another that was an attack on a financial industry that in many ways had created the money that funded the film. And this field was notable for the film left out.
But in the end, the choices said a lot about where documentary film is going. The award to Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job” has its lessons.
1. Thank God Banksy didn’t win. The nomination of “Exit Through The Gift Shop” capped a year in which people actually debated whether a documentary film really has to be real, or whether is has to be all real. The blurring of lines of fact and fiction is not good for documentary film, and from its launch at Sundance in early 2010 to its Oscar nomination, it seemed the darling of people who had a hipsterish love of pranks that did not speak well to the tradition of documentary. Fake documentaries, even those based on truth, belong in the fiction category, and we worried what hell a win for Banksy would have unleashed on the idea of documentary-as-the-truth.
2. Money does buy happiness. Charles Ferguson took his millions he made in the tech financial bubble and went after the people who he believed to be responsible for the housing financial bubble. Ferguson sold his company, Vermeer, in 1996 to Microsoft for $133 million at the height of the Wall Street-fueled, free-spending Clinton-era technology bubble that burst in 2000. While Ferguson’s Academy speech last night correctly railed against the Wall Street types for their greed and avarice (and, we suppose, what they’ve done to his portfolio), many a technology millionaire was made by the same Wall Street machinations – but that must be different. Ferguson’s win is part of a wave in which rich people from Johnny Depp to Sarah Palin do documentary work as sort of a hobby, or image builder (see Banksy) or political saw. Ferguson has the brains and guile to make more of it than most would have (obviously!), but we’d hate to see documentary become either a (self-) promotional device or a retirement hobby for people who used to invest in indie films.
3. The interview is back. The wave of live-action documentaries that has swept the festivals, and by extension the awards season, had nearly made us think the traditional interview-based film was a dead duck. But Ferguson shone in his interviewing – even if some subjects felt he never gave them a chance – and shows the interview can have its own dramatic arc. That’s good for the tradition. The inherent drama of the sit-down interview (we think of Errol Morris toe-to-toe with Robert McNamara in 2004’s “Fog of War”) has been brushed too easily aside by the inclination of filmmakers to train the camera on themselves (“Super Size Me,” “The Cove” “Catfish”) or to follow the reality-TV trend. People expressing ideas, revealing truths and making amazing disclosures should not be lost.
4. The war may have already had its Hollywood ending. Do you believe that “Restrepo” was saddled with being “another war film” because last year’s surprise winner of Best Picture was a fictional treatment of same? “The Hurt Locker,” like most fictional films, was able to package its truths far more neatly than the deeply complicated truths of the documentary by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington. Cheers to them, despite it, for having risked their lives to bring home a meaningful and troubling documentary.
5. Was “Waste Land” just too messy? Remember that the Academy Awards, for most people, are about gowns and speeches and people waving gold statues. “Waste Land,” about the world’s biggest trash city, may never had a chance. We never thought “127 hours” could succeed in the dramatic film category – a guy cutting his own arm off doesn’t go well with the popcorn and Sno-Caps. “Waste Land” had that liability, as well as that of the audacity to co-opt a T.S. Eliot title, even if dropping the “The.”
6. Preachy is holding steady. The last decade has spawned the preachy documentary, with do-gooder filmmakers telling you what to think instead of letting you just see the facts. Environmental films have led the charge, but the spate of films on the education system, gun control, sustainability and the food supply have all made documentary audiences sometimes feel they’re at a sermon. Ferguson’s acceptance speech had its share of fire and brimstone, meaning that the notion of documentary filmmakers as people out to push a view, rather than “document,” lives on.
7. One step too far is still too far. Josh Fox’s set piece for “Gasland” was the stream of tap water being lighted in a veil of flames, but it may have been that visual that got the gas industry railing against the film. The gas industry went after the inaccuracies and stretches of truth in a film that The New York Times called “sloppily executed.” No matter how much truth may have been in the film, it might have been undermined by its own overreach. Largely true isn’t true, and that may have flamed Fox’s Oscar chances.
8. Sundance’s documentary programmers are still the main Oscar players. “Gasland,” “Waste Land,” “Restrepo” and “Exit Through The Gift Shop” all premiered at Sundance (“Inside Job” premiered at Toronto), meaning that the route to the Oscars still runs through Park City. That’s well and good, but we do wonder if that concentration of power means that the Sundance crew is really creating the aesthetic for documentary film… and the answer is of course they are. The Sundance slate becomes a de facto Oscar short list. But that power renders other festivals as little more than also-rans – the festivals that get the films Sundance didn’t want. We’d love to see different festivals help shape the sense of where documentary film goes from here. We’d love to see one of the “prestige” doc-only festivals (Full Frame, True/False, Silverdocs, Hot Docs) articulate a notion of what documentaries might otherwise be. If not, every film they premiere is seen as no more than a Sundance reject. Part of that may be to try not to copy Sundance (hip, live-action, politically correct, preachy on issues), but rather to set a counterpoint and create an alternate school of documentary filmmaking. It would be healthy, and fun.